Color naming

Sheila Heti moves away from autofiction: “Pure Color”, review

In its self-sufficiency, pure color withdraws from connection with other things. Rather than appealing to the eye or demanding to be applied to a canvas, it just begs to be left alone. It is the same problem which, transposed to the human domain, is the recurring subject of Heti’s fiction. In each of her four novels, the narrator is enmeshed in a central relationship that threatens to violate their purity, tear them from themselves, a prospect they find as fascinating as it is dangerous.


This pattern appears from Heti’s first novel, Ticknor, which, at first glance, is completely different from the books she was going to write. Published in 2005, at a time when novelists from Don DeLillo to Jonathan Safran Foer were trying to prove that fiction was equivalent to explaining 9/11, Ticknor was aggressively inappropriate. It is an imaginary monologue by a real 19th century American man of letters, George Ticknor, known in his day as a specialist in Spanish literature but now almost completely forgotten. The bulk of the book consists of Ticknor’s ruminations as he makes his way through the cold streets of Boston, to a party hosted by William H. Prescott, a much more successful writer whose stories of Latin America l made famous.

The real Ticknor, Heti acknowledges in a note, “lived a life of popularity and literary success” and was a good friend of Prescott, helping him with his research and eventually writing his biography. Heti’s Ticknor, on the other hand, is an American cousin of Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, an embittered intellectual who seethes against the world. Prescott, a childhood friend who barely tolerates Ticknor’s presence, becomes his obsessive symbol of life’s injustice. Why should Prescott have “the love of the press and his friends and the same warm home that so many are privileged to enjoy, complete glory shining upon him”, when Ticknor literally stinks of failure? “I think there’s something that – call it a smell if you will – emanates from my body and betrays what kind of man I am today and the position I’ve secured for myself, which, despite great efforts, is light,” he mutters. to himself in the formal but hectic prose of Heti.